Energized by drug case, Venezuela opposition keeps focus on vote

CARACAS (Reuters) - Adversaries of President Nicolas Maduro can barely disguise their glee at the U.S. drug arrest of two of his family members, but they are focused on legislative elections next month as their best hope of weakening his grip on power.

Amid a series of U.S. probes into alleged cocaine smuggling and money-laundering by officials and others connected to Venezuela’s socialist government, two nephews of Maduro’s wife were indicted in New York on Thursday for alleged cocaine smuggling after being arrested in Haiti.

Opposition parties demanded a government probe into the case, which they said substantiated long-standing accusations that government and military officials have colluded with drug gangs.

Hardline opposition leader Maria Corina Machado urged the president to resign as suspects Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29, were charged.

“Maduro and his regime stopped being a political movement, and various of their most important elements have transformed into a criminal organization,” said Machado, who was stripped of her seat in parliament last year.

But most opposition leaders sought to keep attention on the Dec. 6 election for the National Assembly, which the socialists could lose control of for the first time in their 16-year rule due to voter anger at the OPEC nation’s economic crisis.

The opposition Democratic Unity coalition, citing nationwide polls showing it has a strong advantage, believes the election could be the beginning of the end for “Chavismo” and its struggling economic model.


Punished by the oil price slump and hamstrung by dysfunctional currency controls, Venezuela is suffering rampant inflation, a severe recession and nationwide shortages of everything from milk to vehicle parts.

“All the polls speak of an irreversible difference ... we have to transform all that discontent into votes,” Henrique Capriles, a state governor who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election to Maduro, told supporters. “The country is in crisis.”

The head of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition, Jesus Torrealba, said the government should order a parliamentary probe into the drugs case.

“There’s no need to wait for Jan. 5 when the new National Assembly, with democrats in the majority, designates an investigating commission,” he said.

Maduro and others have repeatedly denied any official involvement in drugs trafficking, and accuse Machado, Capriles, Torrealba and others of plotting to destabilize the government at the behest of the U.S. government and Venezuela’s old elite.

With the election campaign officially under way from Friday, government leaders are invoking late founder Hugo Chavez’s name at every turn to try to help the candidates of his far less popular successor, Maduro.

“Chavez’s people will win!” Maduro, 52, said during a recent trial of the party’s formidable voter mobilization machinery.

Yet even Maduro - a former bus-driver and long-serving foreign minister unable to replicate Chavez’s connection with the masses - has acknowledged the election is shaping into the toughest yet for “Chavismo”, which has won all but one of more than a dozen national votes since Chavez’s 1998 win.

Anti-Maduro hardliners want a recall referendum in 2016 to oust him if the opposition wins big in December.

Should they take control of the 167-member National Assembly, the opposition is also likely to try to erode “Chavismo” via legislative reforms, and demand freedom of jailed opponents.

If they get a two-thirds majority, they could change judicial and electoral officials at institutions the opposition says have become servile to the government.


That could put them on a collision course with Maduro, who can sidestep the assembly via decree powers and has vowed to maintain Chavez’s legacy “however that may be”.

Opposition protests that sparked violence causing 43 deaths in 2014 remain raw in Venezuelans’ minds.

“It’s not a question of whether I want change or not in a theoretical sense - I need it, for me and my children to eat,” said teacher Marleny Gomez, 36, queuing with hundreds of others outside a state supermarket under the early morning sun.

“What nobody wants though is more killings like last year. Both sides need to make sure that does not happen,” added Gomez, a former Chavez voter from Caracas’s Petare slum, who said she would back the opposition this time.

Though Maduro’s opponents are optimistic, they have a big fight on their hands.

“Chavismo” retains a passionate hard core who, whatever their reservations about Maduro, still view the opposition as Chavez did: a scheming and uncaring capitalist elite desperate to get their hands back on Venezuela’s oil wealth.

The geographic distribution of seats favors the government because it gives a preponderance to rural areas, where Socialist Party support is the strongest. Opposition leaders complain electoral authorities have tilted the vote toward the ruling party.

No pollsters have conducted surveys in each electoral district, which is the best way to gauge this type of vote.

Maduro is on state television almost daily, haranguing businessmen and opponents, giving away taxis, and even promising to shave off his trademark moustache if the government fails to build its millionth house in a flagship welfare program begun by Chavez.

A better-than-expected result would give Maduro much-needed political breathing space. Failure might fan rumored in-fighting among the factions of the ruling Socialist Party.

“The opposition are clear favorites, but they should not fall for triumphalism,” said pollster Luis Vicente Leon. “The final campaign will be ferocious. The government’s capacity for mobilization is infinitely better than its adversaries.”

Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Kieran Murray and Ken Wills